Indian world music composer and sitar player A central figure in bringing together the East and the West, Shankar exposed the world to Indian classical music, dazzling audiences and other musicians with his amazing musicianship and gentle personality.
Born: April 7, 1920; Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
Robindro Shankar Chowdhury was born to Brahman father Shyam Shankar Chowdhury and mother Hemangini. With an absent father, Robu, as he was nicknamed, the youngest of four sons, was raised by his mother. At the age of ten, Shankar moved with his mother to Paris, where his eldest brother, Uday, was a professional dancer with a dance and music troupe that toured throughout Europe and North America. As a result, Shankar was exposed to Western culture, and he became a talented dancer. In 1935 the troupe engaged the classical virtuoso Ustad Allaudin Khan to accompany the dancers. Immediately, Shankar's interest in music grew, and he decided to leave the dance troupe to devote his life to learning Indian classical music. In 1938 Shankar moved to Maihar, where he became a student of Khan, entering into the traditional guru-disciple relationship, the primary means for learning to master Indian classical music.
For his training Shankar was required to practice for up to twelve hours a day, to meditate, to pray, and toworship not only the music but also his guru. After seven years of intense preparation, Shankar, now known as Ravi, became a virtuoso, and he began playing public concerts. In 1941 he married Khan's daughter, Annapurna, though they later divorced. Additionally, Shankar befriended Khan's son, Ali Akbar, with whom he would later collaborate and with whom he would tour. In the 1940's, Shankar toured throughout India, and then he began composing music for films and ballets. By the end of the decade, he had become the music director for All India Radio, and he had formed the Indian National Orchestra. This continued through the early 1950's, during which time Shankar composed the music for the film Pather Panchali, which garneredworldwide exposure. Following this, Shankar decided to take his music abroad, and in 1956 he made appearances in Europe and in America. In this way, Shankar exposed Western audiences, including jazz and classical musicians, to Indian classical music.
Shortly after, he began collaborating with Yehudi Menuhin and Andr? Previn, and he began instructing John Coltrane, Don Ellis, and others in the intricacies of Indian music. The 1960's brought Shankar to an even wider audience. The Beatles' George Harrison met Shankar in 1966, and the two began a friendship that included Harrison becoming a student of Shankar. The relationship between Harrison and Shankar brought huge success to Shankar and brought new interest in Indian music to Western audiences. In 1967 Shankar appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival and then later at Woodstock in 1969. The association with Harrison also enabled Shankar to organize a benefit concert for the refugees of Bangladesh. The concert, which took place in 1971, was a success, and Shankar had the opportunity to play in front of a sold-out audience in Madison Square Garden. Following these large events, Shankar went back to focusing on playing traditional Indian concerts, because he did want to harm the reputation of Indian music by playing to only Western audiences.
So Shankar went back to India for most of the 1970's, before continuing his fusion experiments in the 1980's. He composed another concerto for sitar, he collaborated onmore film projects, including the Academy Award-nominated score for Ghandi, and he delved into electronic music. As the twentieth century came to a close, Shankar continued to tour internationally, introducing his daughter Anoushka to the world stage, and he also published his autobiography, Raga Mala.He receivedmore than a dozen honorary doctorates and numerous awards, including three Grammy Awards. He continues to write, record, perform, and teach with the same vigor that brought him initial success.
The Music While much of Shankar's oeuvre consists of authentic performances of Indian classical music on sitar, he also spent considerable time composing and conducting music that fused Indian classical elements with Western music aspects. His recorded catalog spans more than fifty years, and it includes numerous live-performance recordings, which showcase his spontaneous and impassioned improvisatory style. Many of these recordings appear to be aimed at Western listeners, incorporating short introductory vocal tracks explaining the elements of Indian classical music, abbreviated raga expositions, lively percussion displays, and spirited call-and-response sections. With the fusion recordings, Western musical instruments accompany Indian ones, sometimes in the format of an improvised musical dialogue between players, sometimes in fully composed orchestrated suites. Shankar also composed music for films and ballets, which brought him worldwide recognition. Throughout all of his efforts, Shankar's virtuosity, creativity, and reverence for the music is apparent. Three Ragas. Released in 1956, this is Shankar's first recording for Western ears. Consisting of condensed performances of three different ragas, this recording serves as an important introduction to Indian classical music.
Each track begins with brief, unaccompanied sitar expositions of the raga, moving on to rapid melodic and rhythmic explorations of the raga, which build to a peak before the entrance of the tabla. With the addition of percussion, Shankar dives into precomposed gats (songs), that highlight the improvisational interplay among the musicians, culminating in exhilarating peaks of musical exchange. Improvisations. With this album, released in 1962, Shankar records some of the first examples of jazz-fusion. On the track "Fire Night", jazz flutist Bud Shank and bassist Gary Peacock accompany Shankar in what could be described as a jam session. Important on this album is Shankar's recording of a south Indian raga, "Karnataki". Being steeped in the north Indian music tradition, it was not customary or proper for a musician to borrow a raga from the Carnatic tradition, so this further exemplifies Shankar's all-inclusive view of music, which helped bridge not only East and West, but also India's north and south. At the Monterey International Pop Festival. Recorded live on the last day of a musical festival that included the Who and Jimi Hendrix, this album shows the moment that Shankar captured the attention of Western audiences and also of several big-name musicians. Beginning each piece with a short description of the music to be played, Shankar warmly invites the audience into his world, before exciting their ears with his playing. Highlights of this record include the tabla solo by Alla Rakha, and the following dhun (instrumental), in which Shankar and Rakha bring about an exhilarating climax with their back-and-forth rhythmic and melodic dialogue.
West Meets East: The Historic Shankar/ Menuhin Sessions. The Grammy Award-winning album for Best Chamber Music Performance of 1967, West Meets East: The Historic Shankar/Menuhin Sessions brings two of the world's greatest classical musicians together for a historic recording. Yehudi Menuhin, a Western classical violinist, who had come to appreciate the nuances of Indian classical music, collaborates with Shankar on this and two subsequent albums. The album, while neither completely Western nor completely Indian, creates a true fusion of two music traditions. Menuhin's violin work, which aims to mimic the intricacies of Indian melodic embellishment, complements Shankar's modest playing, showcasing the mutual respect the men had for each other. The Concert for Bangladesh. Another Grammy Award-winning contribution from Shankar, the album features performances not only from Shankar but also from Harrison and other popular musicians of the time. Recorded as part of a fundraising effort for the refugees of Bangladesh, the concert was the idea of Shankar, but it was brought to fruition through the help of Harrison. For the concert, Shankar opened the show with a lively performance with sarodist Khan.
The two men, accompanied by Rakha on tabla, and Kamala Chakravaty on tamboura, presented "Bangla Dhun", a light classical piece based on Bengali folk tunes. Beginning with a typical, slow exposition of the raga and continuing on to an energetic call-and-response section between the sitar and sarod, the instrumentalists brought the crowd to its feet, setting the mood for the important benefit concert. R?ga-M?l? (Sitar Concerto No. 2). This is Shankar's second attempt at composing a Western classical-style concerto for sitar and orchestra. Recorded in 1982 and conducted by Zubin Mehta, the concerto was received well by audiences and critics. The title refers to the mixture of ragas used in the concerto, literally translated garland of ragas. Each movement of the concerto utilizes a different raga, with Shankar, accompanied by a full Western orchestra, improvising and also playing composed flourishes. The album shows Shankar's prowess not only as a musician but also as a composer. Tana Mana. Released in 1987, this album explores Shankar's interest in fusing electronic instruments with traditional Indian instruments. Using a combination of sitar, sarod, tabla, and tamboura with synthesizers, electric bass, guitar, and also vocals, Shankar composes short but dynamic pieces.
The pieces incorporate many Indian classical elements, such as odd metered rhythmic cycles, improvised melodic passages, and vocal percussion and solf?ge syllables. Passages. With this album, Shankar collaborates with American minimalist composer Philip Glass. For some of the pieces the composers orchestrate each other's melodies, so the lines between East and West become somewhat blurred, creating a true amalgamation of classical styles. The combination of instruments echoes this through the use of orchestral strings, woodwinds, and brass in conjunction with Indian traditional instruments and vocals. Nevertheless, the distinct style of each composer shines through, with Glass's haunting atmospheres supporting Shankar's melodies, and Shankar's complex rhythmic structures accentuating Glass's themes. Musical Legacy Shankar's influence is pervasive within many genres of music. His influence on Harrison brought about the explosion of the popularity of the sitar of the 1960's, which was exemplified in the use of Indian instruments and phrasing in pop music. In the realm of jazz, his influence is still being felt through the use of atypical rhythmic cycles and long, exploratory solos, such as those found in the music of Coltrane and his successors.
Within Western classical music, the use of non-Western instruments was nothing new, yet Shankar was able to bring about authentic fusion through his inspired compositions and creativity. Shankar's students, which include his own daughter, jazz musicians, classical composers, vocalists, and other instrumentalists, carry his teachings and music to a new generation, ensuring that the influence of Indian music on the West continues. Additionally, Shankar is regarded in India as one of its greatest cultural ambassadors, which earned him the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India.